Dome casings

Visual flaws of the Heat Dome blanket

Heat wave which swept across the Pacific Northwest and western Canada in late June was an extraordinary disaster. A mass of high-pressure air over the area trapped heat there, creating a “heat dome,” a term that recurred in media coverage. In Oregon, melted electric cables; in Washington, closed roads. Record-breaking temperatures in Lytton, British Columbia, and neighboring First Nations communities have been followed by a devastating forest fire.

Sustained temperatures in Washington have since been called “the state’s deadliest weather disaster.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 800 heat-related deaths occurred in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia between June 25 and June 30. 2,800 more people in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska ended up in emergency rooms with heat-related illness.

The devastating heat—more herald than anomaly– exposed the weaknesses of the media representation of lethal temperatures as well as their link with climate change. The footage that led the reporting largely downplayed the event. Many photos made it look like a mundane heat wave; some were so banal that they evoked archival photography. Photo slideshows mistook the problem for a juxtaposition of ordinary and extraordinary.

The headlines on widespread deaths were accompanied by images suggesting a typical hot summer day. The New York Times associated a stern title with a more evocative image of a picnic:

a ABC News report on emergency trails with a still lapping water from a golden retriever. While the following video provides some tips for dealing with the heat, the endearing image barely reflects a “massive” event:

Other images diluted the fatal event with mundane and stereotypical identifiers, as in this Wired information document:

A photo functione in the Washington post Led by an image, taken by a reporter for Reuters, of people frolicking in a swimming pool under a motorway underpass:

Daily sabah, a Turkish newspaper, offered more death and water games in its cover:

In many cases, the crisis has been reduced to spectacle. The outlets have published countless images of “Heat tourists” flock to Death Valley, California. This shot, from New York Times, shows tourists speechless at the public temperature reading and posing for photos and selfies at the Furnace Creek exhibit:

The temperature is displayed alone were an essential part of the coverage of the crisis and, like the picture below, of TIME, shows — have often made the headlines about deaths:

An eminent Reuters slideshow, released on June 29, featured 21 images; of these, two showed temperature panels, four represented water recreation, and five showed ice packs or people holding water bottles. Only a handful of people clearly under duress or seeking emergency shelter were indicative of a real crisis. Four (including one pictured below, left) were taken at a cooling station installed at the Oregon Convention Center:

The scenes in the center were certainly concerning, as you can also see in this photo from Getty Images:

At the same time, this unique location was disproportionately featured in coverage of a crisis that plagued communities across the Northwestern United States and western Canada. Its frequency of visual coverage indicated a greater dearth of sheltering, weakening or triage images.

The photos of the cooling center also varied considerably in tone, sometimes blurring the line between crisis and inconvenience. Although the pictures transmit more urgency illuminated many media reports, others – for example, the example below, of Willamette Week– chose to publish the the lightest:

While many images have unwittingly downplayed the severity of the crisis, some photographers, especially local staff photographers and freelancers, have started the crisis with a job to match. Some of the most effective and widely circulated images were created by Portland freelance writer Nathan Howard, whose photos were published through points of sale such as the Spokesperson-Magazine in Spokane, Washington. This photo, for example, showed how even first responders were not physically immune to the oppressive conditions:

Another stressed the particular vulnerability of the homeless and agricultural workers:

Howard spent time documenting farm workers struggling in Oregon under the heat dome, as good as the vigil of Sebastian Francisco Perez, a worker, who died of heat. Howard photographed images of Perez printed on signs calling for justice and “no más muertes” – no more dead – and displayed on phones; they are among the rare photos published of some 800 deaths this week:

The challenges of visualizing the heat emergency weren’t limited to images of humans. The toll on marine life was practically incomprehensible. A photo of a starfish, however, is commendable for its use of anthropomorphism: its alluring pink, pebbly form suggests a defeated body with a broken arm – an image of a non-human climate victim that produces an unusual impact. :

Heat waves in America kill more people than any other severe weather. And it’s in an average year. The heating dome at the end of June and subsequent events should serve as a visual awakening. Consumers of information deserve images that are just as urgent in content and tone as the phenomenal crisis threatening the planet.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than it does today? Help us by join CJR today.

Michael Shaw is editor of the non-profit visual literacy and media education site ReadingThePictures, a news photo analyst and visual journalism, and a frequent speaker and writer on news imagery, photojournalism and documentary photography. To follow ReadingPictures Going through Twitter and Instagram.

TOP IMAGE: AP Photo / John Froschauer



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